Happy Homemaker, Ph.D.

A novice homemaker's attempts to use her engineering Ph.D. to serve her family

Christmas Cards

Christmas CardsIt’s that time of year, a time when I aspire to share a greeting with everyone in my heart.  The perfectionist in me declares this should include a summary of the past year (or more if I didn’t get cards out the year before…or the year before that), a picture of my family (of course, dated and labeled with names and ages of each person), and a Christmas card that fits the person I’m sending it to in some way (or at least myself or our relationship).

I imagine a snowy, quiet day in which I would carefully select the fountain pen from my collection that has just the right nib size, barrel thickness, and color to fit my mood and size of my handwriting needed for the card.  I’d choose cardinal red, gemstone green, or perhaps cocoa for ink, and let my heart-felt words of thankfulness for our friendship and best wishes for the coming year flow onto the page while my favorite Christmas music played in the background and a peppermint candle flickered.  I could happily pass a day – or more – in such occupation, and there were days in the past when I did just that.

Today was a day with the perfect, gently falling snow.  A peaceful Saturday.  A day with no outside obligations.  Perhaps I could…

But, it was also a normal day with my sweet Four, the five-year-old singing loudly and dancing haphazardly, the toddler crying (for milk, for help opening the baby gate, for justice when big sisters are mean…), the three-year-old unable to nap and needing help with every single paint jar lid when the rest of the house was quiet, and the baby apparently not being satisfied to play alone on the floor nearby.

A couple of years ago, I would have probably felt frustration and loss, perhaps even a sense of being cheated out of something that I delight in.  Today, I knew it was important for me to share some of my words with a few beloved family members that were on my heart.  I hoped to finish six cards (instead of the close to one hundred I’d love to prepare and send)  – without the year’s summary or thoughtfully selected card.  I traded the bliss of my fountain pens for a ballpoint to avoid the fear of an accidental spill and to save the time I’d spend deliberating on a choice.

I finished only two, but didn’t feel cheated.  I think that’s two more than last year.    And, there’s tomorrow to try for another one or two…  Right?

As I remember Christmas seasons past, my heart fills with joy in reliving days with such special people – family, school mates, college friends, roommates, lab mates, church friends, band friends, and new friends.  I long to share with them how I treasure our time together and how dear they still are to me, despite the distance of geography and time.  I sincerely hope I’ll be intentional and focused enough to send some words to many, even if it’s after Christmas.

But, today, I was telling dear ones how much they are loved.  I did so as I read Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs for the third time.  I did so as I admired her painting and served hot chocolate with whipped cream to my sweet, quiet three-year-old daughter while the other three slept.  I snuggled the thumb-sucking, blond-haired two-year-old after her nap.  I rocked my baby, singing Christmas carols to lull him to sleep.  I washed laundry, cleaned dishes, cooked a meal, and watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my kids, all things that I didn’t do when I had the time to spend all day with a stack of beautiful cards and my fountain pen.

So, for those of you who are dear to me (I hope you know who you are.), please be patient.  This season of life is demanding and hard and RICH.  Please don’t take my negligence as a personal slight.  As I hear at the grocery store (whether with two kids or with four) on nearly every outing, I’ve got my hands full, and I haven’t yet learned to write with my toes.

And, if someday in the future, you receive a card like I imagine sending, please give me a call, because though I may be delighting in the writing I couldn’t do when the children were small, it will mean that they’re not small anymore, and I, well, I just have a feeling that I’ll be missing these days of slobbery kisses, a full lap, and perhaps even the loud chaos and sticky messes, and I’ll need a hug.

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When Life Hands You a Snowstorm… Make Snow Ice Cream!

Sometimes in my part of the country, we’re blessed with snow.  I love to watch the large flakes dance to the ground, covering the ground in white and creating a serene scene that sparkles in the sun and seems to swallow the noise of the city.  Snowfall here isn’t always that picturesque, but I feel a little excitement even when I get to watch the “sideways snow” that flies as small ice missiles from the north, shooting across the sky.

Earlier this month, we had a beautiful snow.  Twelve inches of white.  You can almost make out my ruler in the picture.

12" of snow

12″ of snow

Last year during a wintry weekend, I saw a friend at Women’s World, a conference held in my town.  With snow on the ground, she shared an easy recipe for snow ice cream.  It was so simple and easy, that although I wrote it down (somewhere), I remembered it in my head.  When this beautiful snow fell, I knew it was time to give it a try!  With heavy snow forecasted for my area again this weekend, it’s time to share it with you!

Snow Ice Cream

8-9 cups of clean snow (I just filled a bowl full.)
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix all ingredients well and enjoy!

I didn't have to go far to fill my bowl with snow!

I didn’t have to go far to fill my bowl with snow!

We had made brownies earlier, so we enjoyed brownie ice cream sundaes!

Brownie Snow Ice Cream Sundaes

Brownie Snow Ice Cream Sundaes

The reviews are in…

February 4 - February 9, 2014 019

Good to the last bite (or lick)!

Good to the last bite (or lick)!

"Delish!"

“Delish!”

We’ll be making this again.  Maybe even today…

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The Gettysburg Address – Words for Us Today

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Address of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863

May we remember those who have served our country and their families, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

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The Oatmeal Scotchie Experiment – The Technical Side

Disclaimer:  A couple of close friends have told me that sometimes my posts are such that they don’t understand them.  One friend who said this said she understood that I was “venting.”  I thought this was a great description, not venting as in complaining, but in needing an outlet to speak “my language” of applied stats, optimization, operations management, and process improvement.   I’m still trying to determine what audience I most want to reach with my stories, so for now, I write a little bit of everything.  So, if you’re one that I lose when I pull out my fun-for-me technical vocab, this post may not be for you.  Don’t worry.  Just skip it and tune in next time.  🙂

Designing an experiment properly is not an easy task.  I didn’t do a proper job of it when I explored my questions about the cookies this week, but I wanted to discuss some of the considerations a “real” experiment of this type would need to address.

First, what is the response variable?  In this case, I was looking at cookie quality, but how could that be measured?  I could have had multiple testers (Les, thanks for volunteering!) who would rate the cookies on a scale.  (Not my top choice as a non-continuous output variable, though.)  Since I was interested in voids, I could have taken samples and counted holes per square inch or per cookie somehow (if “holes” was well-defined to be consistently judged).  Since I have some idea of what the cookie should look like, I may have measured height (to gauge a flat or mounded cookie with calipers or something).  See, it’s getting a bit tricky already (or at least time-consuming), isn’t it?

Next, what factors did I want to explore?  Since the different amounts of flour and oatmeal were part of the recipe, I first wanted to look at a mixture experiment, but that wasn’t a good fit for this.  (Ooo!  Perhaps I can do a mixture experiment to optimize homemade play dough or something later…)  So, using the flour/oatmeal combinations given and regarding them as simply 2 choices seems best.  I didn’t think there was much to be gained by trying the in-between combinations.  Next, butter vs. shortening was of interest.  Also, I wondered about the pans, thinking there may be a butter-pan interaction.   Perhaps the refrigeration of the dough before baking would also have an effect.

With these four factors, I would have to make a minimum of four batches of dough – and that design would include some aliasing or confounding (Which means the statistics would a factor would be significant, but you can’t be sure if it’s a main effect or a two-way interaction, for example, in what’s called a Resolution III design.).  That number of experiments is not bad, really, but it’s more than I have room to store at one time.  And frankly, that’s a little more hassle than I’m up for right now with the little ones.

Minitab gives me this half-fraction factorial design (Resolution IV):

StdOrder RunOrder Blocks Recipe Butter Pan Cooled Dough

4

1

1

1

1

1

-1

1

2

1

1

-1

-1

-1

6

3

1

1

1

-1

1

2

4

1

1

1

-1

-1

8

5

1

1

1

1

1

3

6

1

1

-1

1

-1

5

7

1

1

-1

-1

1

7

8

1

1

-1

1

1

With an alias structure of:

I + ABCD
A + BCD
B + ACD
C + ABD
D + ABC
AB + CD
AC + BD
AD + BC
 

I’d also want to be considering blocking in the experiment, because I don’t see how it can be avoided without increasing the “costs.”  Blocking would simply mean, for example, that I’d be baking more than one sheet of cookies at the same time.  The cookies baked in that particular oven cycle have that same treatment that may differ in some ways from the other baking batches.  Identifying something like this helps assign known possible variation to this factor, rather than just adding it to the random variation (e.g. everything else not accounted for with the chosen factors).

There may also be a bit of an ethical dilemma that educational scientists and social scientists are really more familiar with than those of us in engineering or the “hard” sciences.  If you know a particular combination will short-change the subjects (in this case, make the cookies bad), should you go through with that “treatment?”  Okay, so burning cookies or making them crumbly to prove an experimental effect really isn’t much of an ethical issue, but it’s a good question to consider.  Even in the hard sciences, can your experiment be set up to avoid known failures?  (It can.  It involves changing the design space…)

So why, if I love experimental design – and cookies – did I not take this more extensive approach?  (This experiment would yield about 250 cookies.)  Perhaps some of the first questions an experimenter needs to ask is what is he or she interested in learning, what is the available budget (time, money, resources) for the study, and what is the value of the learned information.  Every world – the business, the lab, the home – must have priorities for the many demands facing it.  These limitations are part of what has driven the development of computer experiments that look to optimize the efficiency of designs, meaning finding designs that give you the most “bang for your buck,” or the most information for the minimum number of “runs.”

My thoughts were that I wanted to gather some information with some quick trials while avoiding a one-factor-at-a-time (OFAT) approach (which would likely make me fat, too), so I was interested in a sort of screening experiment.  For minimal costs, (the time it took to make one batch of cookies), I found a way to make the cookies stay together, discovered butter wasn’t the only issue, and found my insulated pans weren’t causing big problems, either.

The results? Delicious cookies, a happy family, and a more confident mama.  My husband and girls wouldn’t be super-impressed with my main-effects and interactions plots from Minitab or the p-value for any statistically significant effects.    Really, my oldest is still 2.  Maybe next year I’ll start showing her that stuff.  😉

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The Quest for the Perfect Oatmeal Scotchie – An Experiment

One day, I baked cookies, and the love of my life chose them as his favorite.  Oatmeal Scotchies.  They were something different and delicious.  He married me.

I tried often to make these cookies again, but they never seemed to turn out “just right” like they had that first time.  When I was working, my baking attempts at these were few, and remembering changes from one baking day to the next was not something that was working for me.  Sometimes, the cookies seemed to come out just right on non-insulated baking sheets, while baking on my regular insulated sheets produced too-crunchy cookies with many voids in them (which made them very crumbly).

I’ve actually avoided making these cookies for quite some time (though they are my dear husband’s favorite and my freezer was well-stocked with butterscotch chips) because I didn’t want the disappointment of another I-followed-the-recipe-perfectly-but-still-failed experience.

I was brave today.

A couple of weeks ago, we visited my parents at the start of our vacation, and Mom had made these cookies.  She had used the recipe from Nestle (printed on the butterscotch chips package) which calls for butter.  The cookies were DELICIOUS, but they also had the small holes in them that I had observed in my baking.  She noted that she never had that trouble with Aunt Viola’s recipe, which uses shortening.  She uses insulated baking sheets, primarily but not exclusively, just like me.

That comment got me to thinking, so today, I combined the recipes.  They are very similar except for the shortening/butter difference – and the flour and oatmeal amounts.  I had previously had a hypothesis (essentially, a hunch, but I’m a scientist, remember) that the oatmeal may have something to do with the voids.  (With one previous batch, I tried mixing by hand instead of using my Kitchen Aid to disperse the oatmeal.  I thought this may minimize air pockets near the oatmeal.  I didn’t notice any change with the results that time.)  I wanted to know if it really was a butter issue or something else.

So, I combined the recipes.  I also baked the cookies on both insulated and non-insulated sheets.  For one sheet, I refrigerated the dough for about an hour before forming the cookies and baking them (on an insulated sheet) to test a suggestion from a friend that all dough that has flour and butter should be refrigerated first before baking to avoid spreading.

Here are my observations:

  1. There were still a few voids in the cookies on both the insulated and the non-insulated cookie sheets, but nothing like what I saw previously.  These were hardly noticeable.
  2. The batch that was in the refrigerator before baking did not spread as much as the others, but I didn’t like this.  The others seemed to look more like “normal” cookies to me, flat and round instead of mounds.
  3. The non-insulated cookie sheet produced crunchier cookies and took less time to bake.  Again, I didn’t observe any significant differences between these and the insulated ones in terms of spreading or voids.

The real results came with my husband’s taste test.  “They’re perfect,” he said.

So, here’s my new family recipe for Perfect Oatmeal Scotchies. (With credit to Aunt Viola for the base recipe.)

Perfect Oatmeal Scotchies

1 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups oatmeal
1 package (11 oz.) Nestle Butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 375 F.  Cream together butter and sugars.  Add eggs and vanilla.  Mix well.  In a separate bowl, combine flour, soda, salt, and cinnamon.  Gradually add flour mixture.  Stir in oatmeal and butterscotch chips.  Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

If using insulated baking sheets, bake for 9-10 minutes for chewy cookies, or until edges begin to brown.  For crunchier cookies, bake for 1-2 minutes longer.  (If using non-insulated baking sheets, shorten baking times by approximately 2 minutes and watch closely to avoid over-baking.)  Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes.  Remove to wire cooling racks to cool completely.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

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The Laundry Project – Define Phase – The Voice of the Customer

One of the first things to do in a Six Sigma-type project is try to understand what the problem really is.  Customers speak in the language of emotions.  Process improvement leaders need to be able to take those emotional comments and discern what needs to be fixed.

For example, “I just want a good cup of coffee,” is not very clear.  What temperature should the coffee be?  What should the taste be like (strong, mild, sweetened)?  Does the type or size of cup matter (It does to me.)?  How can a coffee shop owner make sure the customer is satisfied from these types of comments?

And, what does this look like if your “organization” is your home?  You still have customers.  In my family, the customers are my husband, myself, and to a lesser extent right now, my little girls.  (I say lesser extent not because they don’t matter, but my 2-year-old would be happy enough running around without clothes at times, and my 10-month-old can’t tell me if she’s upset that her favorite outfit isn’t washed yet.)

What are the comments, said or unsaid, that come up in our house regarding laundry?

Running out (or almost running out) of clean underwear for me or my daughter makes me feel a little uneasy.  Seeing the hamper start to overflow makes me feel somewhat overwhelmed.  Having the clothes partially folded or fully folded but not put away causes some friction.  A messy, cluttered laundry room can be a problem (though not one I really saw.  I have “slob vision” as Nony at A Slob Comes Clean talks about.), potentially a safety issue even.  And, I don’t know if it’s the engineer in me or what, but I feel I have to wash clothes as directed on the tags, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to trying to remove stains.  (That stain-fighting perfectionist part of me is getting more relaxed, thank goodness!)

And, that might be it.  Remember, I told you in the last post, I don’t see the laundry process as my biggest problem right now.

Your annoyances or problems with laundry may be entirely different from mine.  What might be some other laundry-related customer comments?

I’m drowning in laundry!

I’m always finding stains – after the clothes go through the dryer.

There is always a mountain of clean clothes to fold at my house.

I can never find a clean shirt for my son.

I don’t have time for laundry!

If the laundry process is something you feel can be improved at your home, take some time and write down the comments you hear or the thoughts you have regarding any complaints about the process (or lack of a process) you currently employ.  In the next post, I’ll talk about how you can look more closely at those comments to find out what the real problems may be so you can tackle them.

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My Newest Accessory (Baby Wearing)

“Wearing” my baby has made it possible for the three of us to navigate stores, go on walks, and enjoy other activities with a single stroller or cart.

I’ve never been much for accessorizing.  I feel a sense of respect and awe for the women I see that seem so put together with matching jewelry, handbags, shoes, etc.  I don’t have the eye to put beautiful outfits together or the patience to shop  toward that end.

But, I have a new accessory that goes with anything.  Her name is Melody.

After about three weeks of being at home after our youngest’s birth, I started to feel a little trapped.  Without a double stroller that I was too frugal to buy, I wasn’t quite sure how to take an outing with my two little ones.  I had one idea, though, that was worth trying.  I dug out my Moby Wrap.

And, we set out to the grocery store, Baby Melody wrapped onto my chest, and Clara riding in the cart as usual.  Now I was able to talk to both of my sweet girls while I shopped!  The next day, we walked to the nearby park, Clara in the stroller and Melody on my chest.

We’ve had a few more outings that I’ve “worn” Melody as we walked, but I also found that baby wearing is nice on the days we just stay at home, too.  Some days, she’s not been too happy except when I’m holding her, and the comfort of the wrap keeps her happy while also keeping my hands free to do other tasks (such as typing).  Yesterday, I let her face out while I kicked a soccer ball back and forth with my two-year old.   We’re having a grand time all together!

So, if you see me in the store, I don’t think you’ll notice my old t-shirt or that I forgot to wear earrings (again).  You may not remember that my toenails are not painted or that unruly silver hairs are sticking up in different directions.  One sweet smile from either of my sweet girls, and I think you’ll agree I’m well-dressed.

P.S.  I tried “wearing” Clara when she was an infant, but she never seemed very happy in the wrap.  Between the learning curve with using the wrap, her colic, and my lack of confidence as a new mom, we didn’t use it much.  I am adding this just to let you know not every baby will like this arrangement, and that’s okay.  You’ll come up with a different way to make everything work!  

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Little by Little…

Reorganizing is taking longer than I expected.  I’m eager to have my things placed in logical, efficient order that is consistent and to have the boxes out of the “staging area” in our family room.  I’m also eager to have Baby’s room cleaned out so we can start putting his or her things there.

It’s easy to forget that I haven’t ever done this before.

When I moved to college, organizing was relatively easy.  I didn’t have very much stuff.  🙂  I also didn’t have very much space.  After college, having a one-bedroom apartment to myself and then moving to a 2-bedroom loft allowed me the luxury of accumulating more things that I liked, and there was enough room to handle them then.

But, then I went back to graduate school and shared an apartment with a new friend.  Yes, I went through things as I packed.  I gave away some of my treasures and packed others into storage (Mom and Dad’s basement), but when moving day came, I moved many things I hadn’t yet gone through down to Arizona.

A year went by.  I married.  We created a new household together.  We received many nice gifts!  And, the house we rented accommodated all of these things very nicely.

A year and a half went by.  We moved half-way across the country to a small rental house.  There was not time to go through much of anything before that move since we’d been swamped with finals, had traveled to see a very ill family member, celebrated Christmas out of town, and then moved ourselves on a rather tight time schedule.  The unfinished basement was filled with boxes.  And, those things I had left with my family (mostly a lot of books) came back to us.

Six months went by.  A tornado struck our town.  Houses adjacent to us were totalled.  The main path was about 1 1/2 blocks away from ours, but we were able to continue living in our house while the relatively minor (Praise the Lord!) repairs were made.

Another five months passed, and we found an opportunity to move again, which significantly cut down my commute.  Again, we moved around the holidays and finals, limiting my time to really evaluate what was necessary to keep.  One room became a “storage room” as my husband called it.   Our house again  could accommodate my “clutter.”

But now we’re sharing our home with a toddler and soon a new baby.  There isn’t room to be so inefficient.  And, for me, going through things takes time.  A lot of time.   Since our toddler is very curious and interested in everything.  This work goes best when she is asleep.  How many nap times will it take, I wonder?

With Baby due in about eight weeks, I wonder how much I’ll get finished and how much will be pushed aside again…  such as the 10 years of paper memories to scrapbook I’m behind on, the photos that need to be printed and put into albums, and whatever else may have been tossed into a closet to deal with “later.”

Little by little, I am making progress.  Sometimes, it’s not very noticeable. Sometimes, like my work on Monday in our bedroom, it is.  🙂

Here’s hoping the rest of the week will bring some progress that will make operations more efficient and our home more comfortable!

~Dana

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Why We Want to Wait – An Ultrasound Story

Another special blessing

Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)

“For You created my inmost being;

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.”

One of the first questions I am often asked after people find out that we’re expecting is “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”  For the second time now, we have decided not to peek in at that secret and to have that revealed first when we meet our little baby.

We had our 20-week ultrasound last month for our dear little one.  All praise to God, Baby looks healthy at this point and has a forecasted arrival date of March 17.  (Don’t get me started on my objections to these due date formulas and estimates.  I have too much of a statistics background to not find them questionable at best.)

I marveled at the little legs, arms, profile, beating heart, spine, and more, amazed at God’s handiwork.  Why are those routine sonograms so brief?  (sigh)  I stare at the pictures the technician captured for us.  I tried to compare the profile of Baby to our toddler’s ultrasound pics, imagining them looking alike or different.  It doesn’t matter, but I like thinking about Baby and dreaming of looking into his or her little eyes.  What color will they be, I wonder?  (Yes, with baby’s parents having one recessive gene and one heterogeneous gene, I get to remember high school biology class and wonder.)

Sure, I wonder if we’ll be blessed with a baby boy, the first grandson on my side of the family, or if we’ll be blessed with another precious little girl.  Still, I savor the anticipation, the not-knowing, and particularly the not-telling.  It may be selfishness on my part with that.  I want the grand event to be what draws the attention.  I want to keep my family also on the edge of their seats until that day in March comes.  (No, I’m not expecting it to be the 17th.)  I think they’re enjoying some rivalry as some expect this to be a boy, others a girl.  I smile at the “logic” of some of the arguments.

I have always loved the anticipation of Christmas through Advent, and this year (though there is a school-related issue that I always seem to battle this time of year and plan to write about someday soon), it seems even greater.  We get to anticipate Baby’s arrival for these few months and rejoice with the birth, Lord-willing, of the newest member of our family.  Can you imagine the rejoicing on heaven and earth when the long-awaited Messiah finally arrived, in God’s perfect timing, after years and years of anticipation?

May these days leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth be filled with anticipation of the best and most amazing gift God has given to all of us, and may the celebration itself be centered on Him and filled with great joy.

~Dana

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